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May 16, 2022•Matthew Cunningham-Cook

The shooting in Buffalo spotlights the taboo topic we must discuss: the link between hypercapitalism and racism.

It’s Time To Talk About Capitalism
People pay their respects outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I was going to sit down and finish up some longer writing projects this weekend. But then the shooting in Buffalo happened, where it appears that a white supremacist 18-year-old drove 200 miles to kill Black people in one of the most African-American neighborhoods in New York state.

It’s a horrifying tragedy, immediately harkening back to the 2015 mass murder at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s church in Charleston, South Carolina. Law enforcement officials say that the murderer had researched the mass murder of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2018.

As a Black person, I have the biggest news-generated pit in my stomach since George Floyd’s murder. It feels as if American society is becoming unmoored from its foundations and we don’t have any coordinated approach — as people on the left, as workers, and as Black people and people of color — for how to respond.

The central problem with the social media age is its neverending cacophony. Silence and contemplation are never allowed. As a result, responses to mass murder almost immediately begin to conform to folks’ prior views — on gun regulation or on white supremacy, typically, but also a broader set of assumptions about how society is and should be organized. When tensions are so high, honest conversations are difficult.

And yet, those conversations must happen — and we cannot honestly talk about racist mass murder without talking about capital and the profit system.

We are not being honest about violence if we ignore the profit motive in weapons manufacturing.

We are not being honest about racism if we ignore the profit motive in the racism that makes non-rich white people identify their problems as Black people instead of the white people who control the global economy.

We are not being honest about the context of violence if we ignore economic inequality.

We are not being honest about media-fueled hate if we ignore the profit motive in news and social media companies that make money off outrage.

In short, we are not being honest about what’s happening if we ignore how hypercapitalism brought us to this moment.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said to his staff in 1966: “Something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

By making explicit the connection between racism and capitalism, we honor the legacy of Black thinkers who have explored this question — Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Assata Shakur, June Jordan, Lorraine Hansberry, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, bell hooks, and Claudia Jones, to Robin D.G. Kelley and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor today.

Papering over these links between racial and economic inequality, then, is also papering over Black American intellectual history.

By skirting around the solution to the problems that all of us in the global 99 percent face, we’re not honestly diagnosing the disease and taking steps to address it in the body politic.

Particularly in the U.S. — where the socialist branch of the labor movement that brought us the eight-hour workday, the weekend, and Social Security was crushed in the McCarthy era and never recovered — we must start explaining the virtues of worker control over production and worker power in politics, and how it addresses the problem we face: The rich make every economic decision in society, while treating workers as subhuman.

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children,” King said.

The one percent — like Rupert Murdoch, the misanthropic owner of Fox News, and TV host Tucker Carlson — uses racism to get a portion of the white 99 percent to act against their own economic interests.

We need to reduce that one percent’s power if we are going to successfully fight racism.

“At Least We’d End Up Eating Lunch Together”

To do that, we must also acknowledge painful truths beyond merely the Republican Party’s open embrace of fascism. We must also acknowledge the Democratic Party’s complementary role creating fertile ground for that fascism.

As shown in Meltdown, Democrats’ Wall Street fealty under President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010 — via the foreclosure crisis, bonuses to bailed out Wall Street executives, and keeping the big banks intact — created ground for the growth of the extreme right, handing far-right Republicans a midterm election victory in 2010 that thrust white nationalist Steve King into the House majority.

In 2016, then, Obama insisted on campaigning for a hated trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Hillary Clinton failed to distance herself from as Trump made opposition to the agreement a centerpiece of his campaign.

Senate Democrats’ 2013 failure — thanks to conservative Democrats, including Biden allies Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) — to confirm Obama nominee Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights section left the agency without a Senate-confirmed head to lead a push on voting and civil rights for the rest of Obama’s presidency.

Trump’s easily preventable 2016 victory is inseparable from the growth of the extreme right in America. A man who launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and demanding a Muslim ban, before praising an apocryphal story about genocidal General Pershing, calling violent Nazi protesters “very fine people,” and retweeting white nationalist Twitter accounts as president is sure to massively embolden extreme white nationalists, and that’s exactly what has happened.

Joe Biden is not some innocent bystander. The author of the racist 1994 crime bill, who made common cause with segregationists, won his party’s presidential nomination against a civil rights protester.

As recently as 2015, Biden bragged about his relationship with white nationalist Sen. Jesse Helms, who was a fierce defender of vicious white minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), sending two aides to a conference in 1979 to urge Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith to “stiffen his spine” against the guerilla movement leading the independence struggle.

Dylann Roof, who killed 9 people in a Black church in South Carolina in 2015, titled his blog “The Last Rhodesian.”

Lest you think Biden’s behavior is ancient history, the president earlier this month pined for the old days when he and his party got along with virulent racists.

“We always used to fight like hell — and even back in the old days when we had real segregationists, like Eastland and Thurmond and all those guys — but at least we’d end up eating lunch together,” Biden said.

For reference: Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi often spoke of Black people as “an inferior race,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina ran as an independent third party candidate in 1948 on an unabashedly pro-segregation platform and led the longest filibuster in history against the Civil Rights of 1957.

Biden’s history of downplaying the dangers of white nationalism in favor of an elite collegiality might explain why his administration has been so reticent to take action on policies that would take some of the wind out of the sails of a rising extreme right, frothing at “critical race theory” and Great Replacement delirium.

Actually Doing Something Might Help

As Andre Perry at the Brookings Institution wrote last year, Biden cancelingall student loan debt would go a long way towards addressing the racial wealth gap and economic inequality.

It has been sixteen months since Biden took office, and there’s still no action. Biden won’t even release an unredacted version of the legal memo on his authority to cancel student debt.

It’s a time-proven axiom that rising economic inequality creates political openings for the extreme right. This is apparent in the rise of Trump, Marine le Pen, and far right parties in Spain, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Reflecting this reality, the polling organization Data for Progress noted at the beginning of April that, 56 percent of young voters from ages18 to 35 in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin “say they would be more likely to vote should all student loan debt be canceled.”

Extremist Republican candidates are set to be nominated in all of those states. As just one example, all of the top Republicans in Arizona haveembraced Great Replacement language echoed by the Buffalo shooter, with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich saying recently that migration is the “constitutional definition of an invasion.”

Defeating them should be a high priority. Given Biden’s abysmal current approval ratings, that only seems possible if Biden cancels student debt. Yet again, economic inequality and the extreme right are inseparably intertwined. We can’t solve one without the other — and yet there is still inaction.

That intransigence is reflected throughout Biden’s party.

Take New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who is from Buffalo. On Sunday at a church service in the city, she said: ​​“Lord, forgive the anger in my heart but channel that into my passion to continue to fight to protect people, get the guns off the streets and silence the voices of hatred and racism and white supremacy all over the internet.”

Meanwhile, Hochul is advancing white supremacist policy every day by failing to endorse Good Cause Eviction legislation, which woulddisproportionately help Black and brown households that are facing eviction.

And both Hochul and Biden are failing to lift a finger to help Amazon Labor Union, the Black-led movement that nonetheless built majority support for the union from workers of all races — the most effective antidote to white nationalism. The generous tax breaks for Amazon in New York are still in place, despite the retail giant’s alleged labor law violations. Biden just gave Amazon a $10 billion contract, after pledging to deny contracts to companies that fail to remain neutral in union elections.

Hope should still spring eternal. I often reflect on the not-so-prophetic words of white abolitionist Wendell Phillips around 1856.

“The government has fallen into the hands of the Slave Power completely. So far as national politics are concerned we are beaten — there’s no hope,” he wrote. “We shall have Cuba in a year or two, Mexico in five. … The future seems to unfold a vast slave empire united with Brazil. I hope I may be a false prophet but the sky never was so dark.”

Less than ten years later, America’s second and much further-reaching revolution — in Emancipation, the general strike of people formerly in coerced bondage, and Reconstruction — was in place, the Slave Power crushed, and hundreds of Black people and their allies were elected on land reform and anti-Wall Street platforms.

Research suggests that people may be drawn to conspiracy theories when they promise to satisfy important social psychological motives that can be characterized as epistemic (e.g., the desire for understanding, accuracy, and subjective certainty), existential (e.g. the desire for control and security), and social (e.g., the desire to maintain a positive image of the self or group)…conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction…Conspiracy belief is correlated with lower levels of education…

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, Karen M. Douglas, et al, 2017

For as long as the printing press has existed, the whole of civilization has quietly fallen under the influence of sovereign entities with the ability to control the value of expended work through the manipulation and control of currency. The ‘sweat of the brow’ ceased to be represented by any discernible value, but rather through an unseen, uncontrollable force of entities outside control of the masses exchanging their representative currencies…

Declaration of Currency Independence, June 27, 2018.

Because Bitcoin hard-liners believe true money is a limited-supply good that must be extracted through production, they claim that fiat money ― created by banks or countries ― is artificial or deceitful money under the control of corrupt powers. There’s a puritanical edge to these cryptocurrency crusaders, who mistrust human institutions and trust in an abstract ‘godlike’ order of mathematics and markets…crypto crusaders see politics as foolish.

These Five Rebel Movements Want to Change How Money Works, Brett Scott, Huffpost.com, September 14, 2018.

We still lack a proper word for today’s world. For her part, the philosopher Catherine Malabou believes we are witnessing the beginning of capitalism’s “anarchist turn”: “How else are we to describe such phenomena as decentralized currencies, the end of the state’s monopoly, the obsolescence of the mediating role played by banks, and the decentralization of exchanges and transactions?”

Those phenomena may sound appealing, but with the gradual disappearance of the state’s monopoly, state-imposed limits to ruthless exploitation and domination will also disappear.

From Cold War to Hot Peace, Slavoj Zizek, Project-Syndicate, March 25,  2022

What makes huge swaths of both the Russian and the US populations currently so vulnerable to conspiracy theories, and hence mass enablers of growing repression and dangerous distraction? Yes, Putin has shut down alternative media, and yes, he has full control of the state media, with the majority rural and small city population soaking up Kremlin propaganda. As a Ukranian video blogger has said of his interviews with Russian prisoners of war, whose mothers he calls to get their response to their son’s involvement in bombing civilians, “often a Russian mother has a TV instead of a brain.” 

But even under the current media censorship in Russia, there are social markers that seep into the culture that could raise questions for the great majority of the population – the mass closing of stores, the bodies being sent home, soldiers not responding to family outreach, the calls from soldiers who thought they were going on a training session and find themselves fighting a brutal war, the growing resistance of reservists, the calling up of 135,000 untrained conscripts for a “military operation,” the actual shutting down of media and protestor arrests, etc. These are generally countered, by the majority of the population, with denial or expressions of paranoid nationalism and projected aggression. But how different are these Russians from the almost 5000 clients who for decades turned over their investment money to Bernie Madoff and cried ignorance when his Ponzi scheme resulted in the loss of $50 billion. They knew they were getting inexplicably good returns for decades, but they engaged in a very convenient form of disavowal.

In the US, the susceptibility to conspiracy theories is usually chalked up to demagogic misinformation enabled by the profit-optimizing social media algorithms and reactionary media moguls. But it is easy enough in the US. to access sufficient enough information to at least create skepticism about conspiracy theories; media bubbles in the U.S. are symptoms of populist disavowal as much as they are cause.

Many are the stakes of disavowal – nationalist, economic, emotional – compounded by the active need of neoliberalism to stoke such rationalizations for profit. Neoliberalism needs a passive population, and all the better for profits when surrounded by chaos and governments distracted by war. It is very telling that a recent study found that while US multi-millionaires were public about their socially liberal stances and their economically reactionary beliefs (no taxes for the wealthy, cut and privatize social security, etc.), billionaires were…silent. They did not make their beliefs public; they donated through secret PACS to demolish government oversight and regulation. 40% of all political donations in the US are made by the 1% of the 1%.

The stake in understanding mass susceptibility to conspiracy theories is profound. While the dysfunctionality of government can result in a cynicism that generates conspiracy theories– as in the example of a dysfunctional US government over multiple decades resulting in deep-state conspiracies– the inverse is also true. Conspiracy theories undermine belief in government: “…exposure to conspiracy theories decreases trust in governmental institutions, even if the conspiracy theories are unrelated to those institutions.” [The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories.]

There are enough actual sinister aspects of American government that one would think conspiracy theories would be redundant. But it is the very nature of globalized 21st century neoliberal capitalism that feeds into the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Aside from the precarity produced by the outsourcing of what used to be the 32% of stable and well-paid union jobs that existed in the US in the 1960s (now 10% and without the same stability or salaries), the very abstraction of neoliberalism is virtually impossible for a mass population to understand – a stock market that is purely self-referential (markets do well when “their expectations are realized,” regardless of how irrational), offshore havens that make it impossible to tie wealth to individuals, a dizzying myriad of tax loopholes for corporations and the super-rich, hidden, internecine relations between government and big money, geopolitical machinations shot through with profit for the few, a finance system of hedges and leverages and “financial instruments” at the top that affects the daily lives of workers, etc. And academic language has not even attempted to clarify neoliberalism for the masses.

Neoliberalism breeds conspiracy theories by creating populaces that find themselves precarious, without understanding how they got there.

Experimental results suggest that experiences of ostracism cause people to believe in superstitions and conspiracy theories, apparently as part of an effort to make sense of their experiences…[and] may be recruited defensively, to relieve the self or in-group from a sense of culpability for their disadvantaged position.

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

During the last six weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the case has repeatedly been made by pundits, journalists, and academics that aside from propaganda, the majority of the population has overwhelmingly supported Putin for decades because they see him as having pulled them out of the dire poverty that preceded the “shock therapy” entry of the country into the free-fall of so-called free-market neoliberal capitalism in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was that neoliberal “shock therapy” – facilitated by both individual Americans like Jeffrey Sachs and the American state itself – that produced the oligarchs who bolstered Putin’s power for many years, and kept the majority of the Russian population just precarious enough that they feel disconnected from the much smaller, more educated, wealthier, media-savvy urban technocrati class in Moscow, who don’t feel as indebted to Putin.

For the millions of Americans who fall for the rhetoric of the craven Republicans who extoll the virtues of Andrzej Duda in Poland and Viktor Orban in Hungary, authoritarianism — when one’s place in a country is not only precarious but incomprehensible — has allure. The pop view that this allure is created by an instrumentalized Christian fundamentalist perspective, misses the point. Christian fundamentalism is a symptom, like many others that are seen as precipitative, rather than symptomatic.

See below a March 2nd column by Slavoj Zizek that spells out the dangers of the misreadings behind Putin’s attack on Ukraine – from the left and the right and the center – and their consequences.

Mar 2, 2022 SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK

Project-Syndicate

Europe’s double standard on refugees, exposed yet again by the war in Ukraine, is morally deaf and geopolitically dumb. The best way Europe can defend itself is to persuade other countries that it can offer them better choices than Russia or China can.

LJUBLJANA – After the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Slovene government immediately proclaimed its readiness to receive thousands of Ukrainian refugees. As a Slovene citizen, I was not only proud but also ashamed. 

After all, when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban six months ago, this same government refused to accept Afghan refugees, arguing that they should stay in their country and fight. And a couple of months ago, when thousands of refugees – mostly Iraqi Kurds – tried to enter Poland from Belarus, the Slovene government, claiming that Europe was under attack, offered military aid to support Poland’s vile effort to keep them out. 

Throughout the region, two species of refugee have emerged. A tweet by the Slovene government on February 25 clarified the distinction: “The refugees from Ukraine are coming from an environment which is in its cultural, religious, and historical sense something totally different from the environment out of which refugees from Afghanistan are coming.” After an outcry, the tweet was quickly deleted, but the obscene truth was out: Europe must defend itself from non-Europe. 

This approach will be catastrophic for Europe in the ongoing global struggle for geopolitical influence. Our media and elites frame that struggle as a conflict between a Western “liberal” sphere and a Russian “Eurasian” sphere, ignoring the much larger group of countries – in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia – that are observing us closely. 

Even China is not ready to support Russia fully, although it has its own plans. In a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a day after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China is ready to work to develop China-DPRK relations of friendship and cooperation “under a new situation.” There is a fear that China will use the “new situation” to “liberate” Taiwan. 

What should worry us now is that the radicalization we see, most clearly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is not just rhetorical. Many on the liberal left, convinced that both sides knew they could not afford a full-on war, thought Putin was bluffing when he massed troops at Ukraine’s borders. Even when Putin described Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky’s government as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” most expected that Russia would just occupy the two breakaway “people’s republics” controlled by Kremlin-backed Russian separatists or, at most, extend the occupation to eastern Ukraine’s entire Donbas region. 

And now some who call themselves leftists (I wouldn’t) are blaming the West for the fact that US President Joe Biden was right about Putin’s intentions. The argument is well-known: NATO was slowly encircling Russia, fomenting color revolutions in its near-abroad, and ignoring the reasonable fears of a country that had been attacked from the West in the last century. 

There is, of course, an element of truth here. But saying only this is equivalent to justifying Hitler by blaming the unjust Treaty of Versailles. Worse, it concedes that big powers have the right to spheres of influence, to which all others must submit for the sake of global stability. Putin’s assumption that international relations is a contest of great powers is reflected in his repeated claim that he had no choice but to intervene militarily in Ukraine. 

Is that true? Is the problem really Ukrainian fascism? The question is better directed at Putin’s Russia. Putin’s intellectual lodestar is Ivan Ilyin, whose works are back in print and given to state apparatchiks and military conscripts. After being expelled from the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, Ilyin advocated a Russian version of fascism: the state as an organic community led by a paternal monarch, in which freedom is knowing one’s place. The purpose of voting for Ilyin (and for Putin) is to express collective support for the leader, not to legitimate or choose him. 

Aleksandr Dugin, Putin’s court-philosopher, closely follows in Ilyin’s steps, adding a postmodern garnish of historicist relativism: 

“[E]very so-called truth is a matter of believing. So we believe in what we do, we believe in what we say. And that is the only way to define the truth. So we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept. If the United States does not want to start a war, you should recognize that [the] United States is not any more a unique master. And [with] the situation in Syria and Ukraine, Russia says, ‘No you are not any more the boss.’ That is the question of who rules the world. Only war could decide really.” 

But what about the people of Syria and Ukraine? Can they also choose their truth or are they just a battlefield for would-be world rulers? 

The idea that each “way of life” has its own truth is what endears Putin to right-wing populists like former US President Donald Trump, who praised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the act of a “genius.” And the feeling is mutual: When Putin talks about “denazification” in Ukraine, we should bear in mind his support for Marine le Pen’s National Rally in France, Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, and other actual neo-fascist movements. 

The “Russian truth” is only a convenient myth to justify Putin’s imperial vision, and the best way for Europe to counter it is to build bridges to developing and emerging countries, many of which have a long list of justified grievances against Western colonization and exploitation. It’s not enough to “defend Europe.” The true task is to persuade other countries that the West can offer them better choices than Russia or China can. And the only way to achieve that is to change ourselves by ruthlessly uprooting neo-colonialism, even when it comes packaged as humanitarian help. 

Are we ready to prove that in defending Europe, we are fighting for freedom everywhere? Our disgraceful refusal to treat refugees equally sends the world a very different message.

Bright Line Watch, in conjunction with YouGov, found that citizen support for their state or region to secede from the U.S. is greatest in the South…Overall, 37 percent of respondents indicated a “willingness to secede.”

Support among southern Republicans grew from polling conducted in January 2021, which showed 50% were in favor of secession. But the number leapt to 66 percent in June.

The Hill, July 21, 2021

[In the midterm elections]…Democrats should be open to conceding that there are certain races where progressives simply cannot win and acknowledging that it makes more sense to throw their lot in with a center-right candidate who can take out a more radical conservative.

We Are Republicans. There’s Only One Way to Save Our Party From Right Wing Extremists, Opinion column, NYT, October 11, 2021, Christine Todd Whitman, Miles Taylor

How we feeling out there tonight?!
Ha, ha, ha
Yeah…
I am not feeling good.

Viral music meme from the song Shit, Bo Burnham

U.S. corporate media journalists and pundits have a deep aversion to using the term capitalism when discussing the country’s forty-year downward economic spiral for over 80% of the population, and its pell-mell rush away from democracy toward chaotic autocracy. This is also the case for everyday liberals in the U.S. (who often watch and listen to this media, or who follow no media at all), by which I mean those Americans who hold progressive social views, but don’t spend time thinking about the far-reaching effects of the neoliberal economic regime.

Instead, the cyclical economic breakdowns and radical disparities of wealth that the U.S. and many other countries in the world can no longer deny are described as generalized decline, free-floating problems of inequality and poverty, the “inevitable” effects of de-industrialization, globalization (euphemisms for outsourcing to cheap labor), artificial intelligence “progress,” robotization, etc. If capitalism is mentioned at all across the Democratic political spectrum (excepting the left), it is equated with liberal democracies and freedom, with the occasional concession that capitalism might need to be tweaked or, for the more progressive liberals, regulated more. But neoliberal capitalism is of course working as it was intended: the 50 richest Americans own as much wealth as the poorest 165 million Americans, which doesn’t seem to undermine the ever-evolving versions of a rags-to-riches stories as validation of unregulated capital. And social media platforms are the ultimate facilitators of these phantasms, monetizing and widely dispersing such fantasies via algorithmic programming.

This NYT article mentions the word capitalism once, in a passing reference to film critics theorizing mafias in cinema as posing tribal alternatives to capitalism. Otherwise, this long article describes decline in the U.S. in terms such as “spiritual and moral vacuum,” “crisis of meritocracy,” “selfishness and narcissism,” ”corrosive and homogenizing effects,” “nothing seeming to be working in the country,” and “something gone horribly wrong,” Something has definitely gone horribly wrong, but the call is coming from inside the house. How do you analyze a system that cannot be named? How do you rectify a system that succeeds on its own terms.

Even before Thomas Piketty’s book [2013], the topic of “inequality” had arrived in the economic mainstream, and with the following line of argumentation: inequality and poverty are no longer regarded so much as a consequence of capitalist economic growth, but rather as a brake on such growth and as a problem for stability…What stands at the centre of attention are no longer the problems that the poor have with capitalism, but the problems that the poor pose for capitalism and its growth. 

Thomas Piketty’s Capital In the Twenty-First Century, An Introduction, Stephan Kaufmann and Ingo Stutzle

The Trump years overtly displayed neoliberal capitalism’s purely transactional nature. It has no need for democratic government in the U.S.. Corporations and oligarchs could care less if the U.S. spirals into a 21st century Orban-like autocracy or pretend-democracy, because the majority of American politicians are already firmly in their pockets when it comes to deregulation and tax evasion. For corporations, government is an annoyance to be dealt with by lobbyists and dark-money groups. (Wait until they find out that it’s not so hard for autocracies to swallow corporate profits.)

Some financial gambles are profoundly sinister, as in the case of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, where there was an intended double interest in preventing its algorithm from stopping the spread of violence-fomenting lies around the 2020 election, because not only did Facebook make huge profits from the misinformation ads that their algorithms super-fueled, but Zuckerberg and company also speculated that by doing so it would guarantee that if Trump actually did get elected, he would return the favor by refraining from regulating the Facebook empire.

In the face of these kinds of assaults, there is a scramble on the part of the Biden government and allies to staunch the hemorrhaging with bandaids – threats and lawsuits by the Justice Department, lawsuits by non-profits, and the formation of the proverbial commissions and hearings. But they cannot keep up with the state and federal legislators who have been cultivated by corporate lobbyists for decades, and who have realized that in place of governance, they can – on the Republican side – supplant governance with a politics of grievance, and on the so-called Democratic center, supplant governance with bi-partisan rhetoric that side-steps vital governance.

As Chantal Mouffe pointed out decades ago, when a democracy chronically depends on its judicial branch to sustain itself (through class-action lawsuits against corporate malfeasance, legal challenges to rampant anti-democratic, anti-labor, anti-civil liberties state legislation, etc.) it is a sign of a failing, if not failed, democracy. Currently, the Republican Party has no need to articulate any kind of political discourse or platform, no need to even pretend to govern. Liberals rail about this, but the Democratic Party was complicit in this approach from the 80s on, courting only the educated technocrati on the coasts, ignoring and ridiculing the so-called “flyover states,” gaming tiny margins in elections. (Geez, how ever did the U.S.become a divided country?) And they did that until Trump won in 2016, which shocked them into realizing that the Democratic party was facing literal extinction without acknowledging the existence of the 80%.

The Republican party has long understood that capital – once triumphant – needs nothing but consumers and shareholders, although consumers are fast becoming quaint anachronisms, as the big profits are made mostly by trading in the abstract, and by parking capital profits in money-laundering ventures and off (and on!) shore accounts [this link is definitely worth perusing.] So it’s a shock to investors in such international laundering sites as the super-high condo skyscrapers in Manhattan, like 432 Park Avenue, when they unexpectedly decide to actually live in them rather than just flip them (due to the pandemic?) and find out that the height of the buildings – their big selling point – makes them implode.

The Robb Report, September 2021, on a 79th floor apartment in 432 Park Avenue, NY, designed by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.

“One of the standout features is a permanent art installation in the dining room dubbed Ukitsobo, or Floating Inner Garden. It’s a bonsai garden of sorts, depicting two of the trees standing opposite one another within a stone planter.” Just as Central Park, which the windows overlook to the north, is one model of nature, I have further miniaturized that model to make a bonsai garden,” Sugimoto says of the piece. “Some day in the future, when we have lost all connection with nature, the bonsai garden in this space will remain as an image of nature as it once existed.

The Robb Report, September 2021.
Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese,1990

That current state of capital is beautifully illustrated in the Danish TV series, Follow the Money, a series created by the developed country that is probably least likely to be subject to neoliberal capital’s deadly games. Although even Denmark, with the lowest ratio of stratified wealth in the OECD countries, is rapidly catching up.

Follow the Money [Bedrag], 2016-2019

Steve Bannon, whose podcast claims 31 million downloads, prepares for a more efficient army of 4000 functionaries for when they next get a chance to dismantle the U.S. government, this time completely.

Mainstream corporate media thrives on 24-hour news cycles, so there is no possibility of analyzing the root causes of such deadly divisions in the capitalist politics of the past 40 years, although it would definitely be helpful if at least the word were used more often. In one unusual exchange on a news (ie punditry show) on CNN, the host (a Republican who has been moved dramatically to the left by the Trump presidency) responded to the Facebook whistleblower’s account – of the secretive policy of radical profit over safety at Facebook – by declaring that Facebook should be shut down to salvage democracy in the US. Her former-senator, centrist-guest-pundit pointed out that it would be useless since in a capitalist country a new social media site optimizing profits would take its place. That was a rare utterance of the word, and it shut down the conversation altogether.

As I speculated in a blog post of May 2018, can we really say that it was Trump who created the mob, or the mob that created Trump in its image. Take, for example, the recent Trump rally during which he tepidly suggested that his followers get the vaccine, and hurriedly had to back down when the audience practically booed him off the stage. “No, that’s OK. That’s all right. You got your freedoms,” Trump apologized, echoing rhetoric from opponents of mask and vaccination mandates. Trump can be seen a projection of mob paranoia, a paranoia fed by decades of government corruption and inaction, by corporate and finance capitalism draining the country’s middle-class and unions, by corporations like the drug companies that created a massive opioid crisis that was primarily pervasive among the uneducated in rural communities with the least job opportunities, etc. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to understand that precarity is the underside of rage.

What if an unconscious projection were actively at play under, around, and outside of the overt discourse of Trump playing to his base. Of course, Trump continuously addresses what he sees as his base with dog-whistles or overt insults in regards to race, ethnicity, women, and LGBT+ populations (not to mention anything else he thinks might please them – patriotism and 2nd amendment rhetoric, etc.). And at his rallies they can be seen to get riled up. This is the typical way of understanding how a despot would play to his audience. But given how often he ignores or defies his base’s supposed interests when others with more economic or political power are plying him, it is difficult to understand his base’s dogged devotion to him without imagining a phantasmatic dynamic that the domains of journalism or TV pundits or the twitterati, or even most of academia, will not consider.

What if Trump were actually himself a phantasm projected by his “base,” rather than his base being an inherently evil group to which he plays? What if he is an effect – a hologram – of their rage? 

Ground Control to Major Trump, my blog post of May 2018

What I had not yet read in 2018:

Freud’s notion of the leader as one on whom the group depends, and from whose personality it derives its qualities, seems to me to derive from his point of view of identification as almost entirely a process of introjection by the ego; to me the leader is as much the creature of the basic assumption as any other member of the group, and this, I think, is to be expected if we envisage identification of the individual with the leader as depending not on introjection alone but on a simultaneous process of projective identification (Klein 1946) as well.

Bion, Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, 1961
Dr. Melfi in an analytic session with Tony Soprano. Can we say it’s a successful transference when the analysand remains a murderer?

Over the last few years, some academics and analysts have focussed on the intersections of democracy, neoliberalism, and the psyche. It is through the lens, for example, of a concept developed by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion [1897-1979] – the basic assumption group – that one can understand both how the group can create and idealize the leader, and why the group can easily shift to denigrating the leader. As theorists have written about Bion’s concept, one aspect of group behavior requires the leader to relieve all anxiety, and when that fails, the group can turn on the leader and replace them. This brilliant text by Conrad Stephen Chrzanowski on the subject of Bion’s basic assumption group in regards to the 2016 election of Trump illuminates how both the Trump supporter and Trump detractor groups can be seen to have been organized psychically in ways that – through each group’s unrecognized introjective identification biases – made it difficult for the detractor group to take seriously the possibility of Trump’s winning the election, and difficult to mount a successful public argument against the Trump candidacy. But because the author omits any mention of neoliberal politics, which I believe underlay the formation of the basic assumption supporter group (uncontrolled anxiety shifts a “work” group to a dysfunctional basic assumption group), the theory rings somewhat hollow. However, Chrzanowski’s argument has enormous potential for a deep understanding of the current state of American politics. For me, it is the most important lens through which to view current group/mob politics. But perhaps it can only be an academic who takes this up in regards to neoliberal politics, and not a practicing psychoanalyst.

A different hypothesis, developed by Noelle McAfee in Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, looks at right-wing rage through the lens of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s posthumously published paper, Fear of Breakdown (1974), in which he proposes, based on his own clinical practice, that the analysand’s common fear of breakdown in the present is actually an indication of a less examined or repressed trauma or breakdown in the past.

It could be said that in the U.S. one could equate a personal fear of breakdown in the present to the mass paranoia externalizing the dissolution of the country (America is no longer “great”- as McAfee points out), or the determined, but phantasmatic, belief in the breakdown of an electoral process. This fear of breakdown in the present is exploited to the nth degree by demagogues. In an individual’s case, the breakdown in the past that is displaced onto a fear of breakdown in the present could be a childhood experience too painful to have faced. According to McAfee’s schema, the displacement onto a present fear of breakdown on the part of a mass population can be related to an inability to face, for example, the realities behind decades of neoliberalism- the breakdown of state governance, and the overwhelming rise of wealth stratification due to decades of exploitation.

I find this analytical framework very enlightening for understanding the present madness of the 75% of American Republicans who believe that the American voting system has completely broken down, and for understanding the tens of millions of Americans (not all Republicans) who are profoundly susceptible to countless destructive conspiracy theories that purport to describe a myriad of breakdowns in the present.

But I find less convincing McAfee’s focus on the concept of deliberative (a type of participatory) democratic practices as “an affective process of making difficult choices, encountering others, and mourning what cannot be had.” McAfee importantly aligns herself with a psychoanalytically-formulated deliberative process – which moves beyond one that depends on rationality, such as Habermas’s version of “reasoned argumentation among free and equal citizens who are motivated to reach a rational consensus.” She poses instead the process of “choice work” developed by Daniel Yankelovich and David Matthew of the Kettering Foundation, which relies on the psychoanalytic concept of “working through” that acknowledges that “When people are caught in cross pressures, before they can resolve them it is necessary to struggle with the conflicts and ambivalences and defenses they arouse.”

But how does one scale this up to an American mob mentality at least 30 million strong, a kind of mass madness long described by psychoanalytic theory. And it’s not just a question of scaling up, but also of facing the depth of mass defenses built up over decades, and actively exploited, in a country like the U.S. We are talking about a country where the National School Boards Association recently had to ask Biden for federal law enforcement and Justice Department assistance to deal with the physical threats directed at their members by right-wing fanatics (aka parents violently raging against mask and vaccine mandates, which are only stand-ins for inchoate rage). These parents attempting to threaten their way toward full control of public schools are not going to “struggle with conflicts and ambivalences and defenses.”

Another psychoanalytic schema that I have come across in regards to the current effects of neoliberalism on extremism and its erosion of democracy is based on Melanie Klein’s object-relations theory of paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. To put it much too succinctly, while the paranoid-schizoid position describes the psychical experience of the infant and child – splitting good and bad, projecting bad and harm as coming from external beings and conditions and introjected good as internal only to the infant or the immediately available caretaker – the depressive position is a sign of maturing, an acceptance of “…whole object relations. Achieving this involves mourning the loss of the idealised object, and associated depressive anxieties.” As Klein points out, humans who mature into the depressive position will over their lifetimes regress to the paranoid-schizoid position, and back. A 2019 lecture by theorist Amy Allen on the structures of belief in conspiracy theories posited the idea that the rabid Right in the U.S. can be seen as having regressed to the paranoid-schizoid position, and must be shifted to the depressive one, accepting of loss through grieving, among other processes.

I don’t disagree with that analysis, and it’s extremely helpful, as Allen points out, for avoiding the knowing arrogance of liberals and academics who see themselves as undeniably superior to those who act like toddlers in the face of the profoundly complex political challenges that exist today.

But the question is how you reverse the decades of damage wrought by the neoliberalism that created that dangerous regression. Another way to pose the question is, can basic assumption groups be shifted toward being functioning work groups (i.e. voters are one such potential work group, with a singular aim). I have long thought that Bernie Sanders instinctively understands this, which is why he has never indulged in the arrogant “deplorables” discourse of a Hillary Clinton. He roundly denounces the mob’s racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia. But he also tries to offer them recognition through the succor of policy that tries to address the mass anxiety produced by economic precarity. The question is whether the relatively small group of progressive politicians in this country can carry the day, or whether they will be thwarted by the Right or, even worse, by corporate “centrists,” including Biden, who use the pretext of “bi-partisanship” to water down such policy that might, in its own pragmatic way, overcome defenses.


There is no Trumpism. The man does not have a philosophy, and people can try and draw lines between the dots of his decisions. They will fail. I do think he has brought people into the party who are disaffected with the Democrats, working class-people, blue-collar workers. I think that’s great, the more the better. But I want a party like Ronald Reagan, optimistic, forward looking, trying to unite the country around conservative values.

John Bolton, Former Trump National Security Advisor; life-long right-wing foreign policy hawk.
State of the Union, CNN, November 22, 2020

It’s very hard to fathom. Look, I’m a conservative, I got into this fight 40 years ago about smaller government, and lower taxes, and traditionalist values, and a strong military.  And that 40 years later, I and people like me are being put in the position of being accused of disloyalty because we do not buy into the notion that from his grave seven years ago Hugo Chavez paid off the Republican governor of Georgia in a pay-or-play scheme to fix voting machines, machines which were just verified by a hand recount – that we are somehow being put in the position of having to say, it’s ok that this go on this way because the President has every legal right to contest and we don’t really have certification, like, this is where you get off the train. When you are asked to take the train to crazy-town and then move to crazy-town, and then send nuclear missiles to strike normal-town.

John Podhoretz, Editor of Commentary, Neocon, right-wing judicial“constructionist,” speech writer for Reagan and George W. Bush,  co-founder of a corporate public relations firm. 
Meet the Press, November 22, 2020

“Democrats have occupied the White House for sixteen of the last 24 years, and yet the decline of the middle class has only accelerated. Wall Street gets its bailouts, wages keep falling, and the free-trade deals keep coming.”
NYT graph showing donations to Biden (blue) and Trump (red) Campaigns by education level.

Blue = donations to Biden. Red = donations to Trump.

A “Vitality” map. Blues represent high vitality (I.e. in household income, high life expectancy, low unemployment.) Oranges represent low vitality in those categories.

It's hard to figure out which will be worse for the upcoming U.S. election - Trump surviving Covid-19 and or not surviving Covid-19, because in addition to the fact that a death would create an unprecedented legal situation, the reality is that a society created this Hydra monster, and without major systemic changes, two new heads will appear to supplant the one, and one of them is likely to be Mike Pence, overshadowed by Trump during the last four years, but equally dangerous.

On a separate but related note, the Berlin-based curator and writer Dennis Brzek interviewed me for the Berlin online journal Arts of the Working Class, and it's now available.

"Trump’s Democratic opponents have been embarrassingly ineffective. In part this is because they offer so little progressive policy to the masses, even as promises, but also because they are clueless about the representational and performative dimensions of politics - dimensions that demagogues understand instinctively."

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Hodja’s financial situation was worsening. He began to cut down on everything, including the food he gave to his donkey. Since he noticed no change for the worse in the animal, every day he reduced the amount of food he gave him.

One day, the donkey died. Hodja was very sad. “What a shame! Just as he was getting used to hunger, he died.”

Tale by Nasreddin Hodja, 13th Century satirist of the region of present-day Turkey

***

What a shame! Just as people with health insurance were getting used to millions not having it, a pandemic hit and their lack of coverage threatened all.

What a shame! Just as health insurance companies had gotten used to mainly leveraging profits, they had to provide healthcare.

What a shame! Just as the stock market had gotten used to rising with no connection to everyday labor, labor stopped and it crashed.

What a shame! Just as outsourcing materials vital to curbing a pandemic was working, we ran out of those materials.

What a shame! Just as the wealthy had gotten used to not being bothered by the poor, the starving masses took to the streets (some with guns).

What a shame! Just as centrists had gotten used to accepting less and less from their politicians, they needed them to deliver immediately.

What a shame! Just as U.S. politicians had gotten used to gaming slim-margin reelections, they had to respond to dire human needs.

What a shame! Just as middle-class Americans were getting used to corporate news-as-entertainment, their lives depended on non-ideological facts.

What a shame! Just as those living in comfort had gotten used to ignoring those living paycheck-to-paycheck, the precarious started to make their needs known.

What a shame! Just as we had gotten used to hyper-individualism, we had to work together to survive.

What a Shame! Just as the wealthy had gotten used to low taxation, our consumer revenue plummeted and the middle-class couldn’t pay their tax bills, and…

What a shame! Just as the well-off had gotten used to taking essential blue-collar workers for granted, their lives depended on them.

What a shame! Just as the right and centrists had succeeded in demonizing democratic socialism, they needed that system in order to survive without imposing martial law.

What a shame! Just as we were getting used to taking global cooperation for granted, we needed it desperately.

What a shame! Just as Bernie Sanders was maneuvered out of his lead by corporate media, the DNC, and oligarchs… #WhereIsJoe?

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April 10, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joe Biden speaking on March 2, 2020, the day before Super Tuesday primaries.

The Super Tuesday primary week in US politics saw a consolidating effort by the center-right power-brokers of the Democratic party establishment and its sugar-daddies, plus the corporate media, to create a renewed narrative casting Joe Biden as the inevitable democratic nominee for president at this dangerous moment in the country’s history.

And if there’s one thing that this election (as well as the last one) has shown us, it’s that such narratives are almost everything in assuring mass support in an era of an “electability” discourse with pretenses to objectivity and factuality. Polls can, for example, show Bernie beating Trump by wider margins than Biden, but the electability narrative peddled by the corporate media will ignore such details in their narrative about Biden’s electibility.

It is no small irony that these largely fictional narratives determine success in a country that has been massively anti-humanities for decades. It might turn out to be the case that the college degree derided as most useless in the last few decades (an english or literature major, second only to the ridiculed art history degree) is the most useful one to have in shaping political outcomes in this country. For example, the current narrative is that Elizabeth Warren “effectively drove former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, a centrist bilionaire, out of the race” through her warranted attacks on him during the debates. But aside from the fact that this narrative overlooks the power of the viral video produced just before the debate by podcaster Benjamin Dixon, which had a big effect by publicly exposing Bloomberg’s rabid racism and forcing cable media to address it, this Warren narrative – repeated by centrist and center-right newspapers and cable media – completely obscures the fact that Bloomberg’s subsequent loss of traction and withdrawal from the race set in motion the re-direction of his mega-wealth, through a super-pac, to Biden. This means, in effect, that Bloomberg may be able to buy himself a presidency by proxy, one that will protect his own interests and those of his fellow 540 US billionnaires by further entrenching the corporate control of American politics and producing Biden as a candidate (if that occurs) deeply indebted to corporate power. That is a profoundly important narrative that needs to be told, and it’s a narrative that corporate media (cable and print) cannot begin to wrap its mind around.

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Some progressive everyday folks are, though, beginning to question who will be pulling the strings behind a second potential president in cognitive decline.

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Fortunately, in spite of the constant smearing he’s received on cable shows and newspapers, there’s no need to rule out a possible Bernie Sanders delegate win just yet, especially if Warren’s withdrawal results in a progressive endorsement. But what is most astonishing in all of this is not the tossing around of electability and inevitablility narratives in a country where people have been actively schooled that structural change is impossible and that efforts toward it will destroy the country. What is most astonishing is that this time the narrative is being accorded to someone who is clearly in a state of serious cognitive decline.  American centrists seem to be just fine with electing someone showing signs of dementia that have been worsening at a steady clip throughout the campaign. The comparison to videos of Biden in 2016 show a stunning and tragic decline.

As Ryan Grim pointed out on twitter on March 4th, Biden’s supporters seem to be fully aware of Biden’s cognitive problems, and are still willing to support him.

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In fact, the attraction to centrists of Biden’s nostalgia narrative of a so-called return to normalcy and decency seems to engender their willingness to normalize signs of dementia in a presidential candidate. The narrative is so powerful to them that they are willing to risk the loss of the election to Trump by someone who is not only in mental decline, but so far mainly supported in the very conservative states that Trump won the last time he ran against a centrist and will likely win again come November, regardless of who runs against him.

It was, in fact, that very “normalcy” that was the arc that led to Trump’s election – globalized thug capitalism, the outrageous consolidation of wealth at the top, stagnant salaries since the 1960s, etc. – all unaddressed by either party. One can understand the nostalgia of the top 5% of the Democratic party for those good old days. But just why is it that huge swaths of Democratic centrists in the 95% are willing to elect a mentally incompetent president, particularly after railing for years about Trump’s evident loss of cognitive ability?

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March 5, 2020

The answer may be that Democratic centrists in the 95% have long accepted, whether consciously or not, the paternalistic determination of their lives by party machinery – by politicians long bought by lobbyists, corporations, and oligarchs, and by the Democratic National Committee that enables this commerce.

Centrists in the 95% seem to now project onto that political conglomeration their desires for a return to “normalcy.” This seems to be why they are not fazed by Biden’s precipitious mental decline. They’re willing to trade one figurehead for another, because self-consciously, or not, they know that the strings have been pulled from behind for a very long time, and with a candidate like Biden it will continue with the system in place. All that they seem to require is a switch of parties.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there is a kind of mass comfort in acquiescing to corrupt power at the top:

In a recent Tony Kushner translation of Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” there is an eye-opening line in which Courage says something like “The people like it when the leaders of a war engage in profiteering; they know their investment means there’s a good chance of victory.” So a mass identification with exploitative greed at the top contains a kernel of pleasure in it, and the left would do well to understand that articulating truths often does no more than reinforce these identifications.

Silvia Kolbowski in Between Artists, A conversation Between Silvia Kolbowski and Walid Raad

The dangers of a Biden nomination are legion: dementia – primarily, but also a history of calling for entitlement cuts, support of disastrous trade deals that sacrificed jobs for consolidated wealth, lack of political acumen in regards to his son’s opportunistic financial dealings, corporate cronyism, a history of plagiarism and lying, etc. It will be impossible for Biden to counter Trump’s dirty dealings during debates. Cognitive decline? Check. Lying? Check. Cronyism? Check. Nepotism? Check. Threats to entitlements? Check.  But given the logic behind Biden’s support by centrists of the 95% (those at the top need no argument at all), it is hard to convince them of the dangers of a Biden nomination by relying on an argument about Biden’s countless weakness. Because what may appear as illogic to those of us who seek to point out these dire weaknesses through factual discourse, may actually have a powerfully logical appeal to the psyche that we cannot hope to change with reason alone. The psychical centrist logic is: The Democratic president’s dementia won’t matter because our party is powerful and will take care of things somehow; we know that strings are being pulled, and will be pulled behind the puppet when he wins, but the party’s connection to corporate power and oligarchs reassures us because we know that those in power will keep the system from failing completely. 

Combine the cynical calculations made by the DNC machine to support the candidate of the status quo with centrist logic, and you have the perfect storm. This is particularly so since electoral politics rarely take the psyche into account, unless it is done intuitively by a politician. For example, a politician like Trump.

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Progressives need to understand the role of the psyche in politics and become more savvy about breaking that identification. And it will begin with language.

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Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, 1993; “Don’t drive angry.”

Pundits and journalists and podcasters are flush with midterm election dissection, endlessly discussing the good and the bad in regards to challenging the radical damage being done by Trump & Co. But for the most part, in the American media it’s always Groundhog Day, and when a country finds itself divided down the middle in the ugliest of ways, it must be due to something that happened yesterday, or, better yet, today. Ah, if only dissecting the past was sexy, addictive, or gif-able.

With a mad king in the White House and the GOP gleefully stacking the courts and hacking away at whatever was left of the separation of powers, who potentially deals with what gets shunted to the side – history and its psychical consequences?

Historians, theoreticians, artists, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers…

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Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

This storm is what we call progress. Having recently finished an artwork that addresses the psychical underpinnings of the present moment, I have been thinking about the question of time in regards to the psyche and politics; about how art has the potential to create an experience similar to that of the psychoanalytic therapy session. Illumination can occur retrospectively after talk therapy, without conscious effort or application, and the potential to illuminate retrospectively, without conscious effort, also belongs to the realm of culture.

Nachträglichkeit [afterwardsness]… implies a movement from past to future: something is deposited in the individual, which is only activated later on…Laplanche compares this to a delayed-action bomb.

Time and the après-coup, Dana Birksted-Breen, 2003

The predictable, but still shocking, re-revelation that the U.S. voting population is basically divided down the middle – politically and geographically – was made that much more evident in the midterm elections. Rural areas were solidly behind Trumpian candidates and they voted with the vengeance that his inflammatory rhetoric fanned. But I have yet to hear a journalist – even the liberal ones – discuss the historical and psychical underpinnings of that phenomenon. Beyond the easy labels, why is that population so susceptible to Trump’s rhetoric? Once we label them racist, xenophobic, and mysoginist – do we not want to understand how they got there and why they are so untouched by progressive discourses? Why them and why there? There are some maps around today that when overlapped show frightening indications of how the legacies of economic precarity and under-education can predict a susceptibility to an identification, with Trump’s discourse of resentment, at least when not overridden by the racial or ethnic or religious threats that may motivate a voter to see through it. The other day, a liberal, black MSNBC host referred with gleeful contempt to how even in a small city you can find pockets of “techies” who vote democratic, while rural areas don’t have techies at all, and therefore can be ignored in soliciting democratic votes.

The U.S. is a country particularly devoted to the idea of the here and now. It is the not-surprising ethos of a country born out of the trauma of repressed genocide and mass immigration that define its foundation. But as psychoanalytic theory has pointed out, the here and now is also suffused with history. The present is multi-directional – the past can be known from the present, and the present can be known from the past. Yet we persist in sustaining the fantasy that, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the American population is reborn every day, without having been impacted by even the recent past. At least Murray figures out that history seeps through each freshly repeated day.

Allegory and analogy –  as with Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theater, these have long been fruitful methods for cultural works, because artists sometimes realize that the psyche is resistant to direct – and painful – explication. The contradictions of the present can be better conveyed through a different historical framework. The impact of such cultural works may not be immediate, but they have the potential to resonate over time in a spectator, in the same way that the analysand’s life can resonate indefinitely with the effects of a recounting told during a single session of analysis.

There is aggressive pleasure in projecting evil otherness onto a part of the culture that seems impossibly daunting to alter. The effects of culture will not take the place of (free) higher education or of the eradication of polarized wealth, but they have a role to play.

why I didn't report

Flyer found, in the rain, on Broadway and Prince Street, NYC. A text written by a self-proclaimed MAGA man mocks Dr. Ford’s veracity. In the second text, a feminist challenges his lack of compassion.

We live in revolutionary times. I cannot imagine now what it would have been like to be thinking about Rosa Luxemburg if the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had not taken place. I do not know whether it would have been easier or more difficult. But one thing revolutionary moments do is force us to revise our sense of time, stretching us between past and future, as we comb backwards for the first signs of upheaval, and look forward to see what is to come. For many observers, but mainly those in power, the uncertainty is a way of stalling the movement of revolution, curbing its spirit by calling it to account in advance for a future that it can’t predict or foretell. These are the fear-mongers, who point to a range of monstrous outcomes – say, anarchy or Islamic control – as a way of discrediting what is happening this moment, now; who manipulate the dread of a terrible future (and the future may always be terrible) to dull the sounds of freedom.

It is of course the whole point of a revolution that you cannot know what, if anything, can or should survive. 

“What more could we want of ourselves!,” Jacqueline Rose, 2011, London Review of Books

The recent events surrounding the Kavannaugh nomination – the senate confirmation hearings involving some strong moves on the part of DEM senators, the subsequent multiple credible accusations against Kavanaugh of sexual assault and attempted rape, and the imminent senate hearing on the Dr. Christine Ford accusation – have the radical and spontaneous qualities of revolution. And, as with all revolutionary moments, the details surrounding this moment will never satisfy those (currently on the right) who will insist that change arrive (although hopefully not at all)  in neat packages, tied up in textbook legal ribbons. Even the recent complaints by centrists and those to the left of center about Michael Avenatti’s self-inscription into the challenge also have that quality – but when the repressed returns, do we really expect to have orderly choices about who leads the discourse at what moment?

Sexual assaults on women overwhelmingly take place without witnesses (although in this instance, there seems to be an actual witness whom the GOP is determined to keep from answering questions under oath). Because of the contexts of such assaults – and the fact that false accusations are rare – attention to the accuser’s story must categorically be given weight and taken seriously, must be believed. But it is a catch-22 for the victim that even as reporting sexual assaults and rapes creates a hellish legal and social process for the victim, she is still expected to report an attack immediately, without succumbing to trauma and the fear of additional consequences. Having been traumatized and facing the incredibly flawed investigative and judicial systems stacked against her – not to mention misogynistic social structures — the rape or sexual assault victim suffers many times over when bringing the accusation forward after a sometimes-long temporal delay that to various degrees erodes memory. It is not just the victim’s memory that may suffer in regards to the sort of details that the law demands; it may also be that of the primary and secondary witnesses, for whom the assault was not central.

But as Ford herself wrote in her statement, some details regarding the assault may have faded or disappeared, but certain details remain indelible:

I truly wish I could provide detailed answers to all of the questions that have been and will be asked about how I got to the party, where it took place, and so forth. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to. But the details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult. (Dr. Ford in her statement to the Senate, September 26, 2018)

Still, regardless of whatever happens during and after the Thursday hearing, even if we have in the past week made some progress in regards to a mass popular belief that women who bring forward accusations after forensic evidence has long disappeared are virtually always telling the truth, rape and sexual assault victims will continue to have their credibility questioned because of the perfect storm of incentives to not report, and the inevitable erosion of memory of some details. So – setting aside the ruthless agenda of the GOP- it is particularly tragic that we live in a culture (maybe more so in the U.S. than in some other countries) where the denial of the psyche is so absolute. How is the general public supposed to understand – without any understanding of psychical processes, let alone surrounded by an anti-intellectual social contempt for such processes – why some traumatic details may not be fully recalled, and others from the same event can be recalled with crystal clarity?

The positivism of some of the arguments against Ford and the other accusers – that if they had really suffered they would have reported immediately, or that if they are telling the truth they would have more precise details that could be corroborated – has to be read as a refusal of the unconscious. Because the unconscious has its own logic, which may well appear irrational to a court of law or, in this case, a court of public opinion, which right-wing politicians can then exploit in circumstances like these. And that refusal of the unconscious is not only present in our judicial system, our policing, and our political system. It is deeply embedded even in the institutional history of therapeutic training in the U.S., which has always privileged consciousness and the will and, in the last decades, pharmacology. The unconscious is nowhere to be found in that training, with the exception of a small community of psychoanalysts practicing in the U.S., often derided by the general public and other types of practitioners.

Even in the fields of art and art history, a psychoanalytic approach is not valued in the U.S. In art history it is thought to interfere with a focus on art, and in art practices…well, that would require another post.

I’ve thought for decades that feminism cannot be advanced without a psychoanalytic framework, for many reasons, one being the myriad of ways in which women are not taken seriously as narrators. But the events of the past week have made it clear that justice itself cannot take place without a psychoanalytic framework. And therefore, democracy…

Feminists will be engaged for a long time to come in what Juliet Mitchell has called “the longest revolution.” Hopefully, it’s breadth will be extensive enough to include a legitimation of the psyche.

*Postscript to come.

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It seems that two academics have come out with a new study claiming to have discovered the answer to the political question that is baffling liberals- exactly why did the Americans who voted for Obama in six crucial states in the 2012 election end up voting for Trump? After what I’m sure was an exhaustive analysis, they came to the conclusion that it could not have had anything to do with a precarious economy because “all of the manufacturing jobs that were lost [i.e. the job security loss that masses in some states would have suffered, with resulting un- and under- and low-paid employment] were eliminated at least a decade ago, so people weren’t responding to that loss in the last election.” What was the conclusion of the study? It turns out that the real reason those voters got Trump elected is that white people felt their sense of themselves as a group being challenged. And if you believe that’s the main reason for their switch, I have a bridge for you. No, seriously, it’s a real bridge. It’s just that it’s a bridge to a land where things that happened ten years before have no effect on the present. And it goes without saying that things that happened even longer ago have no effect in that land either.

With regard to Trump voters in general, a new book by a writer who followed HRC on two campaigns has revealed that HRC had created a three-part taxonomy in 2016 for sure-fire Trump voters, which she relayed to much audience amusement during fundraisers with wealthy donors:

Screen Shot 2018-05-04 at 3.00.43 PMSo the above-mentioned post-election academic study would ignore Basket#2 and privilege Basket #3 as a way of trying to understand Trump voters. Way to go in understanding how precarity produces voters.

For the last year, centrists and liberals have also obsessed over the stubborn reliability of the “Trump base,” with endless assumptions about that reliability rage-flooding mass and social media. The consistent line is that Trump is on a constant quest to please his base with racist, mysoginist, and xenophobic comments and policy.  That is certainly what litters his discourse and some of his policy efforts. (Interestingly, on the same social media, the heavy deregulation and tax cuts gifted to his 1% supporters seem only to be the concerns of very left-of-center journalists and academics.) But confusion reigns for the #resistance legions and for center-to-liberal pundits about just why Trump never seems to disappoint his so-called base, even when he doesn’t deliver on, or when he deviates dramatically from his promises (tariffs, international interventionism, well-paying blue-collar jobs, the wall, “cleaning up the swamp.”). Regardless of his failings in various categories,and his own swamp-behavior, the take is that his so-called base persists in fetishizing him.

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But what if the explanation for this adherence cannot be articulated through a discourse that insists on ignoring the mechanisms of the psyche? What if an unconscious projection were actively at play under, around, and outside of the overt discourse of Trump playing to his base. Of course Trump continuously addresses what he sees as his base with dog-whistles or overt insults in regards to race, ethnicity, women, and LGBT+ populations (not to mention anything else he thinks might please them – patriotism and 2nd amendment rhetoric, etc.). And at his rallies they can be seen to get riled up. This is the typical way of understanding how a despot would play to his audience. But given how often he ignores or defies his base’s supposed interests when others with more economic or political power are plying him, it is difficult to understand his base’s dogged devotion to him without imaginimg a phantasmatic dynamic that the domains of journalism or TV pundits or the twitterati, or even most of academia, will not consider.

What if Trump were actually himself a phantasm projected by his “base,” rather than his base being an inherently evil group to which he plays? What if he is an effect – a hologram – of their rage? Would we not want to understand that rage better as a construction, rather than as an unchangeable evil? We certainly had better want to understand it as changeable. Sounds reasonable, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from reading social media posts by the anti-Trump masses.  This is not to underestimate the concrete effects he is having on what are optimistically referred to as our democratic institutions. If we think of Trump as a projection of the inchoate (and outrageously under-educated) anger that his base feels with regard to the effects of decades of vertiginous precarity into which their noses have been rubbed, then it’s easy to understand why they would derive pleasure from projecting a leader who shits on the norms and institutions that have never in any case protected the precarious in this culture, although some precarious groups have and continue to hold out hope that the more “progressive” party – Democrats – will address their needs through humane promises. (Although the Democratic Party shuns true progressives.) But let others of those precarious groups attain a majority and watch for the rise of despots who don’t look like Trump.

Trump was there to fill the space of the projection. He was widely known through his TV show, and he was importantly seen as wealthy but crass, an unlikely man of the people, and an angry man to boot. I’ve mentioned in another context a compelling line from Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, in which Mother Courage (aka Canteen Anna) says something to the effect that the masses like it when the leaders of a war engage in profiteering, because they know the investment by the powerful means there’s a good chance of victory. Trump’s base is loyal not in spite of his vengeful and corrupt behavior, but because of it. They figure they might stand to profit from someone like that, or at least they feel he’s worth the gamble because nothing else has worked. His non-base voters (those swing voters who voted for Obama in ’08 or ’12) also make such calculations about Trump, while holding their noses. He will disappoint, but he is at least a figment of their imaginaries, and that is a somewhat less passive position to occupy than what they’ve been offered for decades.

So a mass identification with exploitative greed at the top contains a kernel of pleasure in it, and those who try to understand Trump’s base (when they’re not busy despising them) would do well to understand that dynamic. But that would require a bird’s eye view of capitalism today, and certainly journalism and punditry – now feeding off the endless spectacle that is Trumpworld – are not good at the bird’s-eye historical view. That is usually left to academics, but if you’re not educating the masses, what’s the mass role for academics?.

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And let’s see, just what might be educating the masses…hmmm…there’s a lot to choose from,  but how about The Crown, the Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II’s period of  British monarchy? Thoroughly entertaining as a mix of docudrama and soap opera, it sutures viewers in with its obsessive visual verisimilitude, and while you’re thoroughly distracted, it skews the history of power, money, and world politics in diabolical ways. Because, really, don’t deprive us of monarchy-world.

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Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.

Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics, Reflections on the Pentagon Paper,” 1971

[Excerpts below, including those by Freud, are from “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” by Theodor W. Adorno, 1951.]

If it is an impudence to call people “rabble,” it is precisely the aim of the [fascist] agitator to transform the very same people into “rabble,” i.e. crowds bent to violent action without any sensible political aim…

Freud does not challenge the accuracy of Le Bon’s well-known characterizations of masses as being largely de-individualized, irrational, easily influenced, prone to violent action and altogether of a regressive nature. What distinguishes him from Le Bon is rather the absence of the traditional contempt for the masses which is the thema probandum of most of the older psychologists. Instead of inferring from the usual descriptive findings that the masses are inferior per se and likely to remain so, he asks in the spirit of true enlightenment: what makes the masses into masses?

…For the fascist demagogue, who has to win the support of millions of people for aims largely incompatible with their own rational self-interest, can do so only by artificially creating the bond Freud is looking for.

It is one of the basic tenets of fascist leadership to keep primary libidinal energy on an unconscious level so as to divert its manifestations in a way suitable to political ends. The less an objective idea such as religious salvation plays a role in mass formation, and the more mass manipulation becomes the sole aim, the more thoroughly uninhibited love has to be repressed and moulded into obedience. There is too little in the content of fascist ideology that could be loved.

[The nature and content of fascist propaganda] is psychological because of its irrational authoritarian aims, which cannot be attained by means of rational convictions but only through the skillful awakening of “a portion of the subject’s archaic inheritance.”

The mechanism which transforms libido into the bond between leader and followers themselves, is that of identification.

…the primitively narcissistic aspect of identification as an act of devouring, of making the beloved object part of oneself, may provide us with a clue to the fact that the modern leader image sometimes seems to be the enlargement of the subject’s own personality, a collective projection of himself…

…by making the [fascist] leader his ideal, [the follower] loves himself, as it were, but gets rid of the stains of frustration and discontent which mar his picture of his own empirical self.

In order to allow narcissistic identification, the leader has to appear himself as absolutely narcissistic…

…the members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader; but the leader himself need love no one else, he may be of a masterly nature, absolutely narcissistic, but self-confident and independent. [Freud]

Yet Freud is aware of another aspect of the leader image which apparently contradicts the first one. While appearing as a superman, the leader must at the same time work the miracle of appearing as an average person, just as Hitler posed as a composite of King Kong and the suburban barber.

[The leader] need only possess the typical qualities of the individuals concerned in a particularly clearly marked and pure form, and need only give an impression of greater force and of more freedom of libido; and in that case the need for a strong chief will often meet him halfway and invest him with a predominance to which he would otherwise perhaps have had no claim. The other members of the group, whose ego ideal would not, apart from this, have become embodied in his person without some correction, are then carried away with the rest by ‘suggestion,’ that is to say, by means of identification. [Freud]

Even the fascist leader’s startling symptoms of inferiority, his resemblance to ham actors and asocial psychopaths, is thus anticipated in Freud’s theory.

For the sake of those parts of the follower’s narcissistic libido which have not been thrown into the leader image but remain attached to the follower’s own ego, the superman must still resemble the follower and appear as his “enlargement.” Accordingly, one of the basic devices of personalized fascist propaganda is the concept of the “great little man,” a person who suggests both omnipotence and the idea that he is just one of the folks…Psychological ambivalence helps to work a social miracle. The leader image gratifies the follower’s twofold wish to submit to authority and to be the authority himself.

The narcissistic gain provided by fascist propaganda is obvious. It suggests continuously and sometimes in rather devious ways, that the follower, simply through belonging to the in-group, is better, higher and purer than those who are excluded. At the same time, any kind of critique or self-awareness is resented as a narcissistic loss and elicits rage. It accounts for the violent reaction of all fascists against …that which debunks their own stubbornly maintained values, and it also explains the hostility of prejudiced persons against any kind of introspection. Concomitantly, the concentration of hostility upon the out-group does away with intolerance in one’s own group, to which one’s relation would otherwise be highly ambivalent.

The leader can guess the psychological wants and needs of those susceptible to his propaganda because he resembles them psychologically, and is distinguished from them by a capacity to express without inhibitions what is latent in them, rather than by any intrinsic superiority. The leaders are generally oral character types, with a compulsion to speak incessantly and to befool the others.

The famous spell they exercise over their followers seems largely to depend on their orality: language itself, devoid of its rational significance, functions in a magical way and furthers those archaic regressions which reduce individuals to members of crowds.

In order to successfully meet the unconscious dispositions of his audience, the agitator, so to speak, simply turns his own unconscious outward.

Since it would be impossible for fascism to win the masses through rational arguments, its propaganda must necessarily be deflected from discursive thinking; it must be oriented psychologically, and has to mobilize irrational, unconscious, regressive processes. This task is facilitated by the frame of mind of all those strata of the population who suffer from senseless frustrations and therefore develop a stunted, irrational mentality.

Under the prevailing conditions, the irrationality of fascist propaganda becomes rational in the sense of instinctual economy.

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Following Freud and Adorno, to understand the susceptibility of Trump’s base, American liberals will have to set aside the blinding rage produced by their own sense of narcissistic loss brought on by Trump’s win.

The leader image gratifies the follower’s twofold wish to submit to authority and to be the authority himself. What better formula for appeasing the fears brought on by neoliberal capitalism’s efficient production of precarity for the masses. And some will always be more susceptible than others, for various historical reasons.

melania trump impersonator

the-walking-dead-zombie-season-6I am not one of the 17 million who watch The Walking Dead, because the last time I was interested in zombies was when I was 17 and went to the midnight screening of George Romero’s cult film Night of the Living Dead. In that film, the divide between humans and flesh-eating zombies is clear. But it’s interesting that one of the premises of The Walking Dead is that it’s hard to figure out who is more dangerous – the zombies, or the humans who have to survive among them. And that seems an apt metaphor for the political landscape today. American liberals are terribly worried about the rightward turn since the last election. They view Trump-supporters as zombies of sorts. But they should start worrying about themselves.

134305Let’s start with how the over-emphasis on presidential power is absolutely fine for liberals and Democrats as long as one of theirs is in office, but not so good otherwise. And vice versa. Did you love it when Obama signed his executive orders (and he signed more than any of the three presidents before him did), but you’re not so happy with Trump’s capacity to do so? These orders were different in substance, of course, but in both instances they are scary signs of the breakdown of democratic structure.  Same thing with gaming the Supreme Court, btw, which underlies presidential selections for liberals. There are so many cases received by the Supreme Court where the Right-wing judges want to turn the case over to the legislature. Liberal Supreme Court judges don’t tend to argue this way, because as the country shifts ever more to the right (even during the Obama years, from the top down), liberal judges know they have their work cut out for them. As Chantal Mouffe pointed out decades ago, the over-dependence on the judiciary in a democracy is a sign of the breakdown of the legislative branch. AKA the breakdown of democracy. The fight against corporate power has mostly played out in the courts, and it’s no coincidence that just recently the Koch Brothers helped to write legislation to limit class-action suits. It’s not like the Right hasn’t noticed that liberals have for decades sought out the judicial loophole to the breakdown of the legislative branch. What could possibly go wrong…?

You might have loved fetishizing the President when Obama was in power. It was certainly easy for liberals to fetishize the symbolism of the first black American president (at the expense of looking soberly at his actions). But those eight years and the fetishization of Bill Clinton at an earlier time (not to mention that of Ronald Reagan, who has been invoked as a model by Republicans and, inexplicably, increasingly by Democrats, including Obama) helped to legitimate the current fetishization of Trump by his “base.”

vertical-zombiesThe other day I listened to a podcast about journalism in the age of Trump, and heard centrists (sometimes called “liberals” in the US, but more increasingly referred to as centrists) talk about this country’s evident turn toward facism. It is no longer easy for smart centrists to ignore the fact that Trump  (or what he symptomizes) did not arise overnight, no longer easy to ignore the suffering taking place among the 95% in the U.S., many of whom are among the 63 million who voted for Trump. But it’s still verboten to use the actual word capitalism, so even the most politically overt speaker (a prominent magazine editor) could only refer to the more genteel stand-ins for the word capitalism – currently “de-industrialization” and “globalization.” As if such conditions are inevitable natural events that humans could not have opposed. But such overt discourse would puncture the superficially repressed fact that most if not all American liberals actually believe in the delusional dream of neoliberalism. How otherwise to explain the reluctance to even use the word capitalism, or to even refer to the inevitability of capitalism’s very dependence on globalization and de-industrialization?

nightofthelivingdead4-100415Speaking of which, Derrida had extremely interesting views on the term globalization, a term he refused in favor of mondialisation. I first read about this in his interview about 9/11, published in 2003 in the book Philosophy in a time of Terror. But for an excellent synopsis of his refusal of the term, read the first four paragraphs on this link 

You’d have to say that with his attention to such differences, Derrida was the anti-centrist. Personally, I’ve always been more afraid of centrists than of the Right. Because centrists, they walk among us. And they seem so nice.

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In the run-don’t-walk cultural category of my new short-form recommendation postings is the BBC One 6-part miniseries, River. (available in the U.S. on Netflix.)

It’s hard to describe succinctly how brilliant this series is. It’s an addictively compelling whodunit with layers of social, economic, racial, historical, and psychical significance. The sad thing is that I cannot imagine such a series being written, produced, or acted like this in the U.S.

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I’m beginning to think this country is just too “young” to produce such work. Not that the U.S. is that young a country. But its deepest and longest history is of native population extermination-which this country is barely willing to acknowledge in its school curricula, or its public – or private – discourses. And with that repression goes nuance and subtlety in representation. Now, nuance and subtlety are just plain old entertaining (for many of us). But they’re also essential  to digging ourselves out of the political mire that we in the U.S. are now drowning in. This moment of political demagoguery and economic exploitation cannot be comprehended in simple terms. Don’t be fooled by consolingly ironic tweets to the contrary.

The unearthing of repression, and the American amnesia around its founding violence, are reasons why Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, LaRose, is also so important. Both River and LaRose, worlds apart in many ways, are similar in many regards. They understand that events are never absent of psychical histories. And that the past will always return – for good or bad, depending on how we deal with it.

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Postscript, 10/6/16- The wheels of my unconscious grind exceedingly slowly. I just realized that the temporal structures of River and LaRosa are very similar- always through a montage of past and present. River can make more clear- with visual devices to its advantage- that, as Alain Resnais pointed out in regard to what critics called possibly the first use of flashbacks in film, all memories and “flashbacks” actually exist in the present. But LaRose has its own literary way of bringing the past directly into the present, through distinctly Native American storytelling traditions.

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Another recommendation: The Argonauts, the highly-lauded memoir by Maggie Nelson. I have yet to read anything that better captures the un-identifiable nature of sexuality. For me, this brilliant page-turner is perplexingly marred by the way that Nelson raises straw men in order to summarily strike down various theoretical arguments about sexuality and subjectivity – Freudian and other – single-quote by single-quote. But it’s still such an important book.

https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/argonauts

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